Farewell then, Damian Hinds. Perhaps it’s too soon to assess your legacy, but given the survival rate of recent education secretaries, perhaps we should try. Not long after you replaced Justine Greening, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that there had been an 8 per cent cut in total school funding per pupil since 2010 – a figure that even special advisers at the DfE don’t try to dispute. Throughout your brief career as minister, there was a steady drip-drip of stories of teachers buying materials, clothing, and even food for their students. A significant number of schools have been forced to adopt four-day weeks. In September, around 2000 headteachers marched to Downing Street in a protest over funding.
Meanwhile, there were more scandals involving the private companies now in control of many English schools – the biggest one on your watch being the collapse of the Wakefield City Academies Trust. In January 2018, the month you were appointed, the public accounts committee flagged up ‘a succession of high-profile academy failures that have been costly to the taxpayer and damaging to children’s education’. The committee repeated its call – first made two years before – for more effective oversight of our fragmented, marketised, and partially privatised school system.
Other guilty secrets continued to leak out. In a report last summer, the education select committee drew attention to the rising numbers of students being excluded or ‘off-rolled’. They found that ‘zero tolerance’ behaviour policies – in other words, the ‘no excuses’ culture imported into the English education system from US charter schools – were driving this increase. The whistleblowers at an academy chain who, earlier this year, bravely spoke out about ‘flattening the grass’ and other practices have shone a light into the black box of ‘no excuses’ schooling. The use of isolation booths by some chains has also made headlines; as you surely know, a parent sued the DfE after her autistic daughter tried to kill herself while in a booth. The students least able to cope with a ‘zero tolerance’ culture, and most likely to be dumped out of schools, are of course those with special educational needs – already on the receiving end of deep cuts to local government funding.
It is not only students who are being pushed out. Last month, the School Teachers’ Review Body reported that teacher recruitment and retention ‘continues to deteriorate’. The DfE’s own statistics, also published last month, show that one in six teachers who qualified in 2017 dropped out after one year. A third of those who qualified five years ago have already left the profession. And they are not being replaced. In what has become an annual ritual, the STRB noted that the government will miss its recruitment target for postgraduate teacher training for the seventh year in a row.
Your response to all this was rather surprising. In your first big speech as secretary of state, you enthusiastically plugged the BETT trade fair, ‘the world’s biggest education technology event’. This year, you opened the show, hailing the UK’s ‘Ed Tech sector’ as the fourth largest in the world, ‘with a projected export value of around £170 million’. Last August, you called on ‘Silicon Valley giants’ like Microsoft and Apple to ‘spearhead [a] classroom revolution’. Your initial round of visits to schools seemed to have taken place in a parallel education system, or a bad sci-fi movie:
I’ve been fortunate enough to see technology being used in revolutionary ways. Students are able to explore the rainforest, steer virtual ships, or programme [sic] robots from their classroom…
This kind of talk was not new, of course. We had already seen the coalition’s ‘Tablets for Schools’ initiative; the setting-up of the Education Technology Action Group by the DfE and BIS (now superseded by the EdTech Leadership Group); the rolling-out of computer-based tests, like the times tables test for Year 4s (an ‘innovative use of technology in testing’) and the new baseline assessment in the Reception year; and the relentless promotion of ed tech by think tanks like Nesta and the Innovation Unit, as well as lobbyists like Edtech UK. As Tamasin Cave pointed out some time ago, academisation has made English schools ‘a magnet for tech interests’.
But, during your time at the DfE, the ed tech sales pitch got noticeably louder. And there was a new message: that the ‘effective and evidence-based use of technology’ is the key to reducing teachers’ workload. Actually, the use of the workload issue as a Trojan horse for ed tech was not entirely new. Back in 2016, a DfE-commissioned report found that one way to tackle excessive workload was – of all things – for the government to ‘support the MIS market to develop and diversify’. (MIS, as most readers of this website will know, stands for management information system: software used by school managers to collect and analyse data – chiefly test scores, grades, and attendance figures – in order to assess the performance of students and teachers.)
But there has been a lot more of this stuff since you became secretary of state. Your response to the report of your own Workload Advisory Group, for example, included a pledge to make sure that all schools have a ‘robust infrastructure for cloud working’, which will make possible the ‘wider use of online testing’. The Workload Advisory Group itself praised the ‘automated detention registers’ and ‘behaviour workflows’ – all part of the MIS, obviously – developed by the Ark academy chain. Because, of course, the real solution to teachers’ workload is to eliminate the need for teachers.
In January, you launched an Ed Tech Strategy, putting £10 million on the table to ‘support innovation’ in the sector, and partnering with Nesta to administer the money via their ‘impact investment’ arm. One of the beneficiaries is a UK firm called Arbor Education, whose main product is a ‘smart cloud-based MIS’ used by big academy chains like United Learning and Reach2. Interestingly, a former director of the company is Ian Armitage, a private equity boss and one-time trustee of the Kemnal Academies Trust (TKAT). (The current chair of the DfE’s Academies and Free Schools Board, Tom Attwood, is also a former trustee of TKAT – and also, as it happens, in the private equity industry.) Another ex-director of Arbor Education is Lennart Hergel, whose online bio is very typical of this brave new world:
Lennart Hergel has over 20 years’ experience in financial services working in New York, London and Hong Kong. He began his career at JPMorgan in investment banking, moved on to derivative product structuring. He later set up his own entrepreneurial turnaround/complex project-financing boutique, helping to incubate and find investors for start-ups in the media and technology sector.
Hergel, as it turns out, was also a director of Virtual Class Ltd., another company receiving taxpayers’ money via Nesta. The firm, which now trades as Third Space Learning, offers online test prep for Year 6 students facing their Key Stage 2 SATs.
One of Third Space Learning’s current directors is Isabel Newman, who also works for Nesta. She has had a seat on the board of two more of the companies being backed by the DfE: CogBooks – a transnational firm selling an ‘Advanced Adaptive Learning platform’ – and Getmyfirstjob. Newman is an Impact Investment Analyst. (The connections between ed tech and impact investment – a new financial market, based on complex ‘structured products’ like social impact bonds – is a story in its own right, for which there isn’t space here.)
The sad fact is, however, that no amount of subsidies from UK taxpayers will allow businesses like Arbor Education or Virtual Class to compete with Facebook, Microsoft or Google, which are rapidly taking over the education 'investment space'. While Facebook -- or, rather, its Summit Learning Platform -- has hit some bumps in the road, in the form of concerns over data privacy and protests by students, Google is well on the way to achieving a monopoly position in both the US and UK schools markets, via its free G Suite for Education and cheap Chromebooks (see here). Google's Pioneer Program is currently introducing British students to the wonders of virtual education. Needless to say, Google's Head of Education Europe has warmly welcomed the DfE's Ed Tech Strategy.